Title: Cheap Thrills
Screened at: SXSW 2013
Directed By: E.L. Katz
Starring: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner, Sara Paxton
It’s one thing to show blood and brutality, but it’s another to earn it and E.L. Katz’s “Cheap Thrills” is a prime example of a piece that’s exponentially more impactful courtesy of quality characters and a well-calculated build that justifies its gore.
Craig’s (Pat Healy) having a rough day. Not only does the guy wake up to an eviction notice on his door, but then he loses his job. While drowning his sorrows at a bar, Craig bumps into an old friend from high school, Vince (Ethan Embry). While playing catch-up, the guys are approached by Colin (David Koechner) and his wife Violet (Sara Paxton) who invite them over to their table for a drink, a very expensive drink. After enjoying a $300 bottle of tequila, Colin opts to use his endless pile of cash to have a little fun, offering up challenges to see how far Craig and Vince will go to earn a quick buck. Taking shots, some innocent ass-slapping and even a broken nose is one thing, but Colin’s eager to test their limits and see what they’re willing to do for the big money.
Ten minutes into the film, you’re sure “Cheap Thrills” is any old family drama. Craig’s a loving husband and desperately wants to provide for his baby boy, but life’s just got him down for the moment, and that’s all that’s necessary to have compassion for the poor guy. By the time Craig hits the bar, you’re desperate for him to just stumble upon a truckload of cash or perhaps just the right benefactor, making for the ideal opportunity for Vince to walk right in. Vince seems like a good guy and all, but when he’s unable to dig Craig out of the hole, we’re back on the hunt for another solution and in come Colin and Violet. It’s clear they’re shady characters, but again, high hopes for Craig’s well being is more than enough to give them a shot, follow them blindly into the night and see where this whole scenario takes Craig.
Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo’s script moves along at an ideal pace with a prime tonal shift all the way to the end. It’s a bummer when Craig loses his job, but it’s also crazy that he bumps into a guy like Colin who’s ready to shell out hundreds to whoever gets a girl at the bar to slap them in the face first. It’s outrageous and the filmmakers let us have some fun with it. However, the film eventually takes a darker turn and while relationships are strained and things get quite serious, that fun still remains, but in a new form.
The game at the core of “Cheap Thrills” comes with two major assets – Craig and Vince feel like real people and you’re curious to see who’s capable of what. Then there’s the natural inclination to wonder, would I do that? It’s the sick and twisted kind of fun that’ll make you squirm at the thought of Craig or Vince going to an extreme, but will also make you laugh and even cheer at the excitement of one of the two completing a mission.
And of course, there’s no selling a concept like this without highly convincing performances and the entire quartet delivers just that. Koechner is absolutely ideal as Colin. There’s something goofy and loveable about him, but at the same time, he’s a smooth talker and very clearly always has the upper hand. Paxton lies low as Violet, but Colin is so boisterous and “Cheap Thrills” is packed with so much testosterone that her presence alone helps ground the scenario.
Embry is almost unrecognizable as Vince. As someone who’s used to seeing Embry portray meeker, sweeter characters, save for “Vacancy,” he plays rough and tough incredibly well. And that’s not even all there is to Vince. Even though Craig is our main man and perhaps the more deserving of the two, Embry does manage to earn Vince a degree of sympathy, something that’s key to making the film’s third act as explosive as it is. As for Healy, the guy’s done it again. “The Innkeepers,” “Compliance,” this, you name it, he’s incredibly skilled in losing himself entirely in a character. Emotions, actions, the slightest facial expression – Healy’s got Craig down to a tee, easily offering up a grand picture, but also using the tiniest nuances to make him feel like a real person caught up in a crazy situation, and that is essential to the success of “Cheap Thrills.”